From Commodity to Community
Churches and the Land They Own
Gilson A. C. Waldkoenig

I. Churches in Green Space: Three Stages

A number of churches, camps, and other religious organizations recently have begun to take care of land in ways that express ecological vision. Turning from human-defined assessments of place, they are reorienting themselves toward God’s continual creativity in the earth and carving out a place for God’s creation in settings otherwise defined wholly in terms of human demographics. These congregations are developing practices that express greater awareness of human interrelatedness with creation and of how their properties are thresholds to the presence of Christ in all creation.


Stage One: Claiming Space

At Amazing Grace Church in Baltimore, people responded to the Word of grace by pain­stakingly raking needles out of the lots behind their church. Not pine needles, but hypodermic needles. They installed flower gardens and vegetable gardens and benches to provide humans a place to rest. A labyrinth for contemplative prayer and a beautiful painted mural claimed the space as sacred. The former pastor of Amazing Grace, Karen Brau, described how she walked the labyrinth every day for three months to commune with God, but also to claim the space as sacred not only for the church but for the neighborhood and God’s world. When drug lords flooded the streets with new rounds of drugs, to drive the population deeper into addiction, there would be a rush of people through the streets and alleys to get the drugs. And there were shootings. The waves of violence coursed past the praying pastor in the labyrinth. But at other times, the sacredness of the space began to have an effect on even hardened hearts (“Nurturing Beauty...”). This space, the only park-like public space in the vicinity, literally a public square, makes a claim for the commonweal over against the chaos of East Baltimore street life.

communitygardenUrban churches can define their immediate geography on the grid of city streets, but to understand the interrelationship of their plants, water, and resident species they must learn how they relate to the wider landscape, greenways, remnants of forest, and natural features that the cityscape often obscures. Ecological and geographic data can show the connection of the urban oasis at Amazing Grace to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and the breathing life of the earth that upholds the rest of the cityscape, neglected and abused though it is.


Stage Two: Connecting in Place

Four years ago, the city of Minneapolis notified Holy Trinity Lutheran Church that they needed to collect and redirect the water coming off their roof. Municipalities all over the country have passed new ordinances because the amount of runoff in the paved landscapes of modern cities creates problems for municipal drainage and sewage systems. Holy Trinity studied their options and chose to construct a rain garden to catch and hold the water. In this garden, native plants could grow, and the excess water could drain cleanly (Cosgrove 2010).

 A church-based foundation gave Holy Trinity a $15,000 grant, but the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization gave them $50,000. As a practical step toward reducing the Mississippi River flooding that has increased in recent years, Holy Trinity’s natural provision for the runoff water was helpful to neighbors miles and miles away. It was also good for the biotic health of the Mississippi Watershed. It is not that the water coming right off Holy Trinity’s roof is particularly dangerous, but in large amounts  urban runoff develops concentrations of toxicity and becomes a juggernaut of pollution. Holy Trinity kept the rain that fell from the sky nearby, and gave it back to the earth quickly. The earth knows how to keep the water clean.

Holy Trinity embodies a second level of the church reconnecting to the green earth in which it lives and resides. Many other churches express their reconnection through food gardens. In a recent year, Big Spring United Lutheran Church in Newville, Pennsylvania, delivered 315 dozen ears of corn grown from its community garden to community food banks. They also delivered thirty-five bushels of potatoes. The average weight of a bushel of potatoes is fifty-four pounds. Hence in a recent year, one church gave away 1,890 pounds of potatoes that it had grown on its own property.


Stage Three: Opening the Threshold

The Lutheran Church of the Reformation in St. Louis Park in Minneapolis is another gardening church. As they worked the land at their church, they also noticed that they stood in a distinctive ecosystem. Once, much of it had been tall grass prairie, and some of it had been forest. They were in the spot where the great Eastern forests met the tall grass prairie. In 2003, they dedicated part of their land to the restoration of the prairie and part of it to forest preservation. Lutheran Church of the Reformation has recognized that it belongs to a wider ecology that extends far beyond its property, but of which its property and its gathered community is a threshold.

 Article Seven of the Augsburg Confession (1530), a foundational document for Lutherans, defines the church to be gatherings around the Word and sacraments. Lutheran Church of the Reformation knows that the gathering does not float in a vacuum. It happens in a place that the earth has prepared through millennia of growth and decay, millennia of construction and deconstruction, millennia of chaos and pattern rolling into each other.

In the highlands of north-central West Virginia, Pastor Paul Poerschke for some years offered weekly worship at two state parks in addition to services at his small-town church. The Division for Mission in North America of the Lutheran Church in America, with the local synod, enacted a vision first advanced by E. W. Mueller and Giles C. Ekola in their book Mission in the American Outdoors (1966). The people who came to the parks were on a pilgrimage and thus were in a receptive state. An informal but liturgically-based, conversational but ­traditionally-rooted gathering for prayer and worship spoke to these seekers. The pastor’s ministry was not a separate chaplaincy outside of his congregational ministry. This pastor had a sense of parish as place, and the place of his parish extended into the ridges and forests in the state parks. The public to which he addressed the Word of God was not only those who gathered in the church building. That was only home base. The entire area in its beauty was home.

In their attention to creation, churches are claiming public parks and the whole landscape as part of the domain of God. They are affirming that soil is part of the commonweal that provides for the sustenance of many. They are reclaiming public space and sacred space in the streets and on the edges of ecosystems long overlooked. From rural to suburban to urban areas, the church is reaching out and finding that the world is not primarily a human place, and that the scope of God’s creativity goes far beyond human boundaries. The idea that we should become aware of our proximity to God in and through God’s creation is deeply rooted in the scriptures and Christian theology, to which we now turn.


II. Biblical and Theological Perspective: Thresholds to the Presence of Christ

Biblical Perspective

The opening story of the Bible declares that creation is good, and the second story in Genesis 2–3 is famous for what then went wrong. The very first problem in the second creation story was not the fruit incident from which came “the Fall.” There was a practical problem prior to that, and it led to a sensible solution. In this light, God’s response to the Fall can be heard in a fresh way.

The story says that creation was already established, and there was a nice garden, but poor Adam had no suitable partner. That was a problem. It seems like something that could have been addressed in the blueprints, but for whatever reason, creation was off and running before poor Adam confronted the problem of loneliness. God came to Adam’s aid and addressed the problem. God enacted another measure of creativity to bless the human with relationship and family and community. Thus we may observe a creation that admits change, allows adjustments, and bestows fresh, unanticipated blessings upon those who inhabit it.

Despite the problem-and-solution in Genesis 2, attention most often has gone to that other famous problem in Genesis 3. The second problem led to chronic dysfunction. The second problem is mythic and mysterious, because it had no immediate practical purpose. The earlier problem had a practical outcome, but this one related to no immediate need. The people had food and water and each other and God. No problem. And God already had solved the initial problem. But from some murky origin, a serpentine question arises: “Did God say?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer demonstrated in his classic, Creation and Fall (1937), how the question itself expressed profound distrust of God. We might add in light of our recognition of Genesis 2 that it also dishonors God’s continual creativity and problem-solving reliability. Ironically the people made their impractical, alien question more important than even their own simple needs. Deluded by their strange question they took up behaviors that were, like their question, mysteriously alien to the goodness of the creation and profoundly mistrustful toward the creative God.

The people took a bizarre turn, out of nowhere as it were. But God is a consistent character in the biblical texts. God remains creative and is always in problem-solving mode. God’s next move is eminently practical. God asks a question. It is the first question in the scripture from God to humans. Genesis 3:9 says, “And God called to the human and said, ‘Where are you?’”

When my children were young, and they were out of sight for a few moments, I would ask “Where are you?” When I was a camp counselor, the question was “Where are your campers?” It is not a bad question. It is not a murky question. It is a clear and practical question. Emergency responders ask “where” and then “what.” The question, “Where are you?” brims with care and concern. It is a question filled with love and grace.

If he had listened to the question in light of God’s proven creativity and problem-solving record, Adam would have been hearing the first sermon of grace, but Adam heard God’s first question through the filter of his own dysfunction. And so he fumbled his answer. Adam replies, “We heard you coming and so we hid.” This was not a great answer to the first question ever addressed to humans by God. Adam’s answer shows stubborn adherence to his distrust—that mysterious, alienating perpetuation of the original problem, the original sin.

God’s question does have a barb. It exposed the weird dysfunction. And it absolutely required a turnaround, reorientation, change. In that first question, the drama of repentance and forgiveness so important to the rest of scripture breaks forth. But let us not lose sight of the fact that with this first question, God initiated a creative, problem-solving process. And it is also wonderfully clear that the first question of God is a caring question, a graceful question, and a practical question.

The question “Where are you?” should be exported from scripture and into our world today. We could do a lot with God’s first question, but we first have to liberate our hearing of the question from the overshadowing serpentine question and our distrustful responses to it.

God answers the question “Where are you” over and over again, and the storied remembrances of that follow-up we call scripture. God helps humans sense the answer to the question. For instance, in the complicated fifteenth chapter of Genesis, the character named Abram is vexed about who his heir is going to be and what his legacy is going to be and when he and Sarah might have a baby and why they haven’t yet. God cares about all those questions, according to the rest of the chapter, but in Genesis 15:5 we hear about a simple, physical movement that came first, that orients poor Abram before he can hear the rest of what God has to say. Genesis 15:5: “God brought Abram outside and said, ‘Look to the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’” God is helping Abram to answer God’s first question. Look where you are, Abram. You are under my canopy of stars, my canopy of creation. Where you are is in my presence, Abram. The covenant starts there, with a man in the desert under the stars, held in God’s abiding creativity, located in God’s grace.


Theological Perspective

Location is part of the historical detail in texts, and we usually like to keep it there. To lift the question “Where?” from the text and bring it into our lives today might make us rather uncomfortable. One reason that location is a troublesome question is that we live today in the wake of several centuries of dramatic mobility. Some of our ancestors moved against their will, in captivity. Others moved in economic desperation. They worked mines, mills, and fields full of hazards and shallow on promise. The church during the last three centuries helped people to cope, but it has nursed the faithful on a steady diet of mobility. To be sure, God’s question “Where are you?” is just as relevant in the middle of a journey as it is to those who remain back home. But the fact of modern mobility habituates us to denying the significance of every location, and our awareness of “where we are” recedes.

Recovering a sensitivity to location is part of connecting to God in, with, and through nature. Theologian Paul Tillich in his essay “Nature and Sacrament” (1929) warned that modern Protestant theology had severed its sense of the Word from nature. Protestantism needed to recover and renew its sacramental theology in the modern world, lest it contort into a dualism that separates the rational mind from matter. Tillich called for a sacramental realism that unites Word and nature. Tillich’s sacramental realism describes for modern ears the reorientation evoked in the ancient question “Where are you?”

Like Max Weber before him, Tillich was confronting the disenchanted rational mind that abandons traditional perception. Many thinkers have tried to negotiate the same gap, and preachers to this day become adroit at hopping hermeneutical gaps between venerable traditions and contemporary cynicism. Tillich’s proposal is not to return to magical thinking, and he spends a large part of the essay “Nature and Sacrament” criticizing Romanticism. But Tillich was moving into a kind of sacramental-natural realism that allows for both rational and more-than-rational possibilities. Re-enchantment with sacrament and nature is possible because the Word is deep in nature, not disembodied.

The Word, Tillich noted, is physical and natural, just like the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. In order to speak the Word, we must pull atmosphere into our lungs and breathe it back out. We not only shape the borrowed atmosphere into meaningful signals of the gospel but also exchange oxygen for CO2 in a process that sustains our very existence. Proclamation of the Word gives life directly and immediately to the one who speaks it, while it also gives the promise of abundant life to the one who hears. As you borrow the wind from around you and re-shape it in your lungs, to come back as song and story in witness to God’s grace in Christ, the power of that wind already sustains you, not only in a faith that we think, but in a faith that we breathe and speak, a faith that we are. Tillich played out the same observation for watery baptism and culinary communion, marking the nexus of life-giving Word, sacrament, and nature in each.

This implies that those who gather around Word and sacraments are located in both the sacramental presence of Christ’s location in this earth and the natural geography of Christ’s ubiquitous presence in creation. One Lord Christ lives in sacramental presence and in all things. Sacrament carries specific promise, but that specificity is not divorced from the world that Christ came to save. Rising from table and bath while clinging to the living Word received therein, the faithful expect to glimpse the Christ going before them on the horizon of nature. Like a summons and desert stars for Abram, Word and sacraments in nature reorient us to follow Christ in the world.

Although Tillich strongly affirms the connection between Word and nature in sacrament, he nevertheless speaks of the troubled discontinuity between nature and God that he attributes to what he calls “the demonic.” Here is that same mysterious dysfunction that we noted in the serpentine question and in Adam’s fumbled response to God’s query. A result of the demonic is that we would hide ourselves from God, and we have hidden ourselves in nature. Christ at great cost outdoes us, however, hiding himself in nature and sacraments in order to find us out.

In sacramental reception of the promise, Christ emerges with grace and we are reoriented. It remains true that at many other times Christ is hidden from our eyes in terrifying ways even in the very world around us that Christ has come to love and save. When we see the mountains blasted and deforested, Christ is obscure to us in a way that terrifies. When coal company bulldozers desecrate rural graves on their way to blasting mountaintops, the integrity of Christ and creation recedes from focus in a terrifying way. When fracking potions contaminate the good water of the earth, the modern alchemy of the energy industry displaces sacramental realism of the living Word. When eroding topsoil washes downstream from deforested areas, and when species of impressive complexity disappear, Christ goes with them to our terror. Then, disoriented, we are lost.

Yet, the means of grace, Christ’s ­sacramental-natural presence with his promising Word, re-connect and reconcile us to the scenes of grace that emerge in the world despite terrifying disgrace. There is a place to go for reorientation in grace. When we cannot tell where we are or how we got there, we can hear from God some coordinates that show our proximity to grace. In sacrament embedded in nature, God says, “You are where I am, through the presence of Jesus Christ, in my abiding grace.” It may sound strange and alien to turn to the wounded world, tragically disgraced, and to describe it as not only loved and saved in God’s grace, but as the very Kingdom of God, the noble paradise God intended it to be, as good now as it was declared to be in the mists of origins, and even still the theater of God’s problem-solving faithfulness. However strange it may sound, the same sacramental-natural presence of Christ that summons our repentance and offers forgiveness of sin is the same Christ come to save the torn and scorched earth, to heal creation, and to bring it to its promised restoration and preservation.


III. Data for Reorientation

Biblical and theological perspective shows that Christ is present in sacramental and natural encounter and that the first question, “Where are you?” is full of love and grace. The church has, in many places, demonstrably affirmed and blessed its location because it expects to meet Christ in the Word and sacraments. With inspired vision and great love, Christians have built churches and gathered around Word and sacrament to let the promise of God resonate in particular places.

Congregations, camps, and church agencies may today answer the question of where they are with greater attention to the surrounding area and their neighbors. The field of mission studies has for decades mapped demographic and social data around the churches. Today geographic data and mapping software present the opportunity to see church locations regarding ecosystems, watersheds, greenways, and forests. Today, the church can map how it belongs to human communities and to the landscape.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and many other churches have never yet collected specific geographic data in relationship to the landscape and environment. For instance, the ELCA has never surveyed the acreage belonging to each congregation or church agency. The information is available today, although it would take a serious collection effort to obtain and organize it. Nevertheless, the environmental applications of church acreage data would be many.

Information about which congregations have faced the question of signing a gas lease in Pennsylvania, or who is in proximity to wells gone toxic, would have strategic value. The church serves those who suffer the effects of fracking as well as those few who receive gas royalties, but it knows not its orientation and proximity to both parties except in theory. We know there must be churches along the new pipelines built to distribute fracked gas to a global market, but we do not know which ones. When an individual church comes to attention because of problems or ethical questions, the wider church expresses concern. But each case is somehow a separate case, each one left to the maze of local, state, and federal bureaucracies, the broiling intensities of community conflict, and the incessant profit-predation in the market.

By beginning to answer God’s first question with specific geographic data, we would put ourselves into a position to be responsible, like the churches in our three examples, cited above, and others. We belong to watersheds that we share with our human neighbors and the natural ecosystems around us. Our lands around our churches are part of the migratory paths of birds, butterflies, mammals, and other species. The trees on church grounds are part of a wider canopy that is crucial to curtailing modern desertification. Urban, suburban, and rural re-forestation is a strategic response to global warming. In farming country, some churches are adjacent to fields growing proprietary genetically-modified crops and others are next to organic farmers. Knowing where we are, specifically, in terms of our geographic location in the land, its ecosystems, and its economy, will be increasingly important in the years ahead.


IV. Joining Public Environmental Restoration and Wilderness Preservation

The church’s greening of its own properties begins a reorientation that puts the church squarely within an important public movement. It is a movement that goes back at least to June 30, 1864, when President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a bill that protected 38,400 acres of land in California. The goal of the law was to preserve the land from private ownership so that it could be used for public enjoyment and recreation rather than for individual exploitation. Such action was unprecedented. The 38,400 acres were the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. Lincoln signed the law on the same day that he broadened the income tax to pay for the war to preserve the Union. The remote valley that Lincoln preserved remained far from the public eye, until decades later when it became a well-known symbol of America’s natural heritage. It would be a sign of American desire for health, rest, and sabbath in the face of industrialization, global conflict, and public unrest.

A century and two months after Lincoln’s action, on September 3, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law a bill that protected nine million acres of federal land in a new National Wilderness Preservation System. The Wilderness Act of 1964 arose from eight years of painstaking legislative work. Its author, Howard Zahniser, was the son of a Methodist minister from northwestern Pennsylvania. The law said that the wilderness areas would remain “untrammeled” by people and development. For Zahniser, the word “untrammeled” had religious overtones. It meant space for sabbath, wonder, and worship and a break in the unbridled consumption of the landscape.

Today there are 107.5 million acres of National Wilderness and 80 million publicly owned acres in the National Parks. That is only a fraction of the 2.3 billion acres of the United States. There are many sensitive ecological areas that deserve to be, but are not yet, part of the wilderness system. There is also a worldwide need to preserve wild lands from deforestation and habitat destruction. Nevertheless, powerful interests continue to mow over vast stretches of wilderness, and efforts emerge in Congress to strip wilderness designations that stand in the way of immediate profit. Closely related to the vast national scope of preservation are important state and local efforts to preserve wild lands and green spaces. In light of environmental issues that affect us all, preservation of green space is not only a remote rural issue but also an urban and suburban concern.

Christian churches have seldom engaged the public fray over wilderness, land, and habitat. However, some pioneering congregations, church camps, and other religious institutions have made steps toward preserving green space and connecting to the environment through their church property. They are onto something big. The church must join the public environmental and wilderness preservation efforts, because in a sense it is already involved. Church lands are thresholds to the environment and wilderness. The three levels of congregational greening show that the church is beginning to move away from exclusively human orientation and toward a larger sense of the wider environment. There are profound biblical and theological roots for that reorientation. To engage in the biblical-theologically indicated pattern, the church must collect specific data and draw new, relevant maps of its place in the landscape. The reorientation of the church in the environment and toward wilderness brings renewal in ministry and new friendships with neighbors. Reoriented to God, neighbors, and creation, the church may see its land to be no mere commodity, but as a ­valued place for ­community.


Gilson A. C. Waldkoenig is Professor of Church in Society at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.


Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall. [org. 1937]. Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2007.

Brau, Karen. “Nurturing Beauty and Delight in Dry Places.” Unpublished Manuscript.

Cosgrove, Ryan. “The Stewardship of Water.” Metro Lutheran. September 23, 2010. http://metrolutheran.org/2010/09/the-stewardship-of-water.

_____. “Little House of Worship on the Prairie.”  Metro Lutheran.  August 26, 2010. http://metrolutheran.org/2010/08/little-house-of-worship-on-the-prairie.

Mueller, E. W. and Giles C. Ekola. Mission in the American Outdoors. St. Louis: Concordia, 1966.

Tillich, Paul. “Nature and Sacrament,” [org. 1929]. In The Protestant Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

Wilderness Act of 1964. Public Law 88–577. United States of America.

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